McGinn: Packers roll to NFC North championship
DETROIT – Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was one week from happening the last time the Green Bay Packers closed a regular season with as many as six straight victories.
Seventy-five years after those Packers of the Don Hutson, leather-helmet era reeled off nine in a row to finish 10-1, their modern-day successors will take a six-game winning streak into the NFC playoffs.
From 4-6 to 10-6, the Packers’ reclamation project completed its last order of business Sunday night with a 31-24 triumph over the battling Detroit Lions before a crowd of 66,345 at frenetic Ford Field.
An hour before kickoff, the Packers automatically clinched a playoff berth when Washington was upset by the New York Giants, 19-10.
The victory in Detroit gave them the NFC North Division championship by one game over the Lions, who ended 9-7. It was the Packers’ fifth division title in the last six years, a crown that the Lions still have not won since 1993.
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“I’m happy for the guys,” general manager Ted Thompson said. “They came from a long way back when nobody else believed in them.”
The fourth-seeded Packers will play the fifth-seeded New York Giants (11-5) at 3:40 p.m. Sunday at Lambeau Field in a NFC wild-card game. As a touchdown underdog, the Giants upset the Packers in playoff games on the same field in 2007 (23-20 in overtime) and 2011 (37-20) behind quarterback Eli Manning before going on to win the Super Bowl each year.
Shortly after the game, the Packers announced that 8,000 tickets had been put online for sale. Those were leftovers from season-ticket holders who hesitated purchasing tickets for playoff games that for weeks seemed unlikely to be played.
“I am ready to go play anybody at Lambeau Field,” said coach Mike McCarthy. “The Giants had a great season. We played each other early. Both teams have progressed a lot so it will be a great game.”
On Oct. 9, the Packers defeated the Giants, 23-16, in Green Bay. Bolstered by 147 yards rushing, their second highest total of the season, the Packers out-gained first-year coach Ben McAdoo’s club, 406-219.
“This is the first hurdle that we needed to get over for the playoff tournament,” McCarthy said. “We are right there.”
McCarthy became one of four coaches in NFL history to take the same team to the playoffs at least eight years in a row. Others were Tom Landry, Chuck Noll and Bill Belichick.
The sixth-seeded Lions now must go on the road Saturday at 7:15 p.m. for a wild-card meeting with the third-seeded Seattle Seahawks.
The 175th meeting between Green Bay and Detroit was the 100th victory in the series for the Packers. Only once before, shortly before the Day of Infamy unfolded in the Hawaiian Islands, have the Packers ended a regular season with six or more victories.
“It was a good football game,” said Thompson. “We played some good ball. So did Detroit. It’s always a tough game against them and everybody else in our division.”
Asked about the Packers’ chances to do damage in the postseason, Thompson replied, “I feel fine.”
It was the fourth straight year the NFC North was decided on the final Sunday, and the Packers improved to 3-1 in the de facto title games.
“We knew it was going to be difficult to win here,” said McCarthy. “This is as loud as I have ever seen this place. We played a very good football team. What a great atmosphere.”
Once again, the Packers didn’t turn the ball over; in their six-game win streak they have merely one giveaway.
At the same time, their defense posted one takeaway to give the Packers a stunning turnover differential of plus-14 in the six games.
“Resiliency, time and time again,” McCarthy said. “I’m so happy for our players. They have been through so much. We just kept going. It was a microcosm of our entire season.”
McCarthy is now 8-3 at Ford Field and 4-2 overall against coach Jim Caldwell. It was just the Lions’ second loss at home this season.
In the Packers’ sweep of the Lions, Aaron Rodgers out-pointed Matthew Stafford in a matchup of quarterbacks who carried their teams most of the season. Rodgers’ passer rating of 126.0 was well above Stafford’s 96.3.
It was a scoreless first quarter marked by sluggish starts for the two quarterbacks. Rodgers completed just one of his first 6 passes for 8 yards whereas Stafford opened one of 5 for 13.
On the Lions’ second possession, Stafford had a chance for a big play when Golden Tate got behind Damarious Randall 37 yards downfield but the pass was overthrown.
A long drive by Detroit ended when Matt Prater’s 39-yard field-goal attempt hooked wide left. The Lions would have had a first down at the Green Bay 9 on a 14-yard completion to Tate but the wide receiver was penalized for pushing off against Quinten Rollins.
The Lions played without right tackle Riley Reiff, a five-year starter and their best offensive lineman. He suffered a shoulder injury late in the week and was replaced by Corey Robinson, who was making his second start in two seasons.
With Rodgers heating up, the Packers moved 71 yards in eight plays to take a 7-0 lead on a 7-yard checkdown to fullback Aaron Ripkowski. The Lions ignored Ripkowski on the play and he was wide open in the middle.
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During the drive, Tavon Wilson, the Lions’ veteran strong safety, missed the tackle on a 24-yard pass to Jared Cook and a 14-yard pass to Richard Rodgers. The march gained impetus when Rodgers, on third and 7, ducked under an onrushing Ziggy Ansah, scrambled away and found Cook for 11.
The Lions retaliated with a long touchdown drive of their own, this one covering 80 yards in 11 plays.
On third and 15, T.J. Jones beat Rollins, who was playing off coverage, on a deep sideline pattern for 35. Randall started at left cornerback for Rollins, but then Randall left for about a quarter with a knee injury before returning.
Dean Lowry sacked Stafford, which would have set up third and 20. However, Datone Jones was penalized for offsides, and then Stafford’s pass to Eric Ebron on third and 5 gained 7.
Zach Zenner burst through right guard for a 1-yard TD and the score was tied, 7-7, with 5 minutes left in the second quarter.
The Packers’ subsequent possession was ruined by penalties on Jeff Janis, T.J. Lang and Cook in the span of four plays. Jacob Schum’s 28-yard punt went out of bounds.
On the Lions’ third play, defensive coordinator Dom Capers called a zone blitz in which outside linebacker Clay Matthews dropped into coverage. Stafford threw a skinny post on the other side to Marvin Jones.
Matthews saw the route all the way and flowed beautifully in front of Jones. The ball hit him in the hands at the Detroit 48. If Matthews catches the ball, it might have been a touchdown. Instead, he dropped it.
Zenner gained 14 on a screen, then 6 on a third-and-1 carry. Boldin, playing with a finger injury, caught a hook in heavy traffic for 10.
On the next play, Boldin got in the way of Micah Hyde and Randall on the right side and Tate cut behind him inside for an easy 3-yard TD.
Just 23 seconds remained when the Packers began from their 25. Rodgers extended a play right and zipped a pass to an open Geronimo Allison for 39. Three plays later, Mason Crosby’s 53-yard field goal ended the half with the Lions leading 14-10.
Darius Slay, who was questionable with a hamstring injury, shadowed Jordy Nelson for most of the first half. When Rodgers went elsewhere with the ball, Nelson had one catch for 8 yards at halftime.
The Lions lost Asa Jackson, their backup nickel, with an ankle injury in the second quarter. Instead of inserting veteran cornerback Crezdon Butler, Caldwell went with Don Carey, an eight-year veteran with far more experience at safety than cornerback.
As the second half opened the Packers forgot about the running game and began attacking both Slay and Carey.
On the 10-play, 75-yard march, Nelson caught three passes for 42 yards and Carey struggled in coverage. The touchdown came on Rodgers’ 3-yard in-breaking route to Davante Adams, and the Packers led for the first time, 17-14, with 9 ½ left in the third quarter.
“I don’t think we stepped up to the moment in that second half,” said Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy, a Milwaukee Vincent graduate. “We just didn’t stop them enough. We had too many breakdowns defensively.
“In the first half we had good energy. In the second half we just came out flat and we never really recovered.”
The Packers lost Rollins late in the third quarter with a neck injury. A few player earlier, rookie Makinton Dorleant, their fifth cornerback, was carted off the field with a knee injury.
By that time Randall was sidelined for good by the knee injury, leaving the Packers with Hyde at left corner, LaDarius Gunter at right corner and safety Morgan Burnett as nickel back covering the slot.
“We lost three corners in three plays in a row,” McCarthy said. “I think the defensive coaches did a tremendous job of communication, especially Joe Whitt. They were buried with the secondary injuries.”
It was announced by the Packers that Rollins was conscious with movement in his extremities while being treated at a Detroit hospital.
“Everything I know is positive,” said McCarthy. “I felt good when he was leaving the field. So far, so good.”
The Packers padded their lead to 23-14 with a 10-play, 81-yard drive. Sensing a mismatch in the slot between Allison and Butler, who was re-signed Tuesday after a four-month layoff, Rodgers hit him on a slot-and-up route for 31.
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Cook beat dime safety Miles Killebrew on an out cut for 15 on third and 3 before Rodgers hit Nelson for 11. Slay was injured making the tackle and left briefly, and veteran special-teamer Johnson Bademosi replaced him.
On third and 9, Rodgers had ample time before scrambling and, after 8.4 seconds, drilled a low shot that Allison cradled in the end zone beneath linebacker Josh Bynes’ plaster coverage for a 10-yard TD.
“Aaron was incredible again,” McCarthy said.
Crosby missed wide right on the placement, kicking a screwball that veered outside the upright.
Stafford stepped up and found Marvin Jones for 23 to the Green Bay 36. However, a batted ball by nose tackle Kenny Clark, a pass breakup by Gunter and a wild pass, Prater connected from 54 and the Lions trailed, 23-17, with 7:42 showing.
Green Bay turned right around to deliver a back-breaking touchdown drive of 75 yards and 11 plays. The TD came on a 9-yard fade to Adams, who beat clingy coverage by Nevin Lawson, and Adams then added a slant pass for the conversion.
It appeared the Lions had stopped when a third-and-10 pass was incomplete. However, Detroit was penalized for having 12 men on the field, and on third and 5 Ty Montgomery flared out of the backfield for a 9-yard catch.
Stafford threw a 35-yard Hail Mary to Boldin for a touchdown with 13 seconds left. Richard Rodgers then recovered the onside kick to preserve the 31-24 victory.
NFL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE
All times Central
No. 5 Oakland Raiders at No. 4 Houston Texans, 3:35 p.m., ESPN
No. 6 Detroit Lions at No. 3 Seattle Seahawks, 7:15 p.m., NBC
No. 6 Miami Dolphins at No. 3 Pittsburgh Steelers, 12:05 p.m., CBS
No. 5 New York Giants at No. 4 Green Bay Packers, 3:40 p.m., FOX
Saturday, Jan. 14
Highest NFC seed at No. 2 Atlanta Falcons - 3:35 p.m., (Fox)
Lowest AFC seed at No. 1 New England Patriots - 7:15 p.m., (CBS)
Sunday, Jan. 15
Highest AFC seed at No. 2 Kansas City Chiefs - 12:05 p.m., (NBC)
Lowest NFC seed at No. 1 Dallas Cowboys - 3:40 p.m. (Fox)
Sunday, Jan. 22
NFC Championship Game - 2:05 p.m., Fox
AFC Championship Game - 5:40 p.m., CBS
Sunday, Feb. 5
Super Bowl LI (NRG Stadium, Houston) - 5:30 p.m., Fox